I just returned from my first trip to Asia, where I visited Tokyo and some surrounding areas in Japan! It was a beautiful city and I’ve got plenty to write about. Many people gave me tips and let me know what to expect, but there were still some things that surprised me! Here are a few of the main differences that Americans/westerners may notice when they visit Tokyo.
1. Getting around is not that difficult!
While planning my trip to Tokyo, multiple people told me it was the most difficult city in the world to navigate, and a few blogs I read did as well. Needless to say, I was pretty intimidated. I heavily relied on walking and the metro for travel, and it was much easier than I expected. My number one tip is to get a Suica card, an all-in-one ticket for the trains. The metro lines are all separately owned and operated, so unless you want to buy individual tickets for each trip you take, this is the way to go. There are plenty of signs in English to help you navigate, and the people are more than willing to help. Even if the people I asked didn’t speak my language, they would lead the way, point, or even use Google Translate to direct me. So don’t be scared! Be armed with Google Maps to find the quickest routes, and you’ll be fine.
2. Trains and sidewalks are very busy, but also very quiet.
As the most populated city in the world, it’s no surprise that most of Tokyo is extremely busy. Traveling on the weekends and during rush hour can be hectic and confusing, but it is definitely not one thing… loud! Even in the hustle and bustle I found the streets of Tokyo strangely calm. There was no shouting, and there were a few times where my friends and I noticed that we were the only ones speaking on a train. It was relaxing and interesting to be in the middle of a city and barely hear a peep.
3. There are bathrooms everywhere.
A lot of my travel has been within the United States and Europe, and I’ve become accustomed to public restrooms being a somewhat of a rarity, especially in Europe where you often have to pay to use a toilet. I was pleasantly surprised in Tokyo, where each shop, restaurant, shrine, park, you name it, had multiple options for bathrooms. When you’re out all day and every day of your trip, this is just one thing that makes it a bit easier. But be warned – there are indeed plenty of “squatty potties” and many don’t have hand soap.
4. But almost no garbage cans!
Japan is an extremely clean country, but with barely any trash cans! It boggles my mind a bit to think of how they maintain the clear streets, but it is truly a struggle to find a bin to throw your trash in. Keep this in mind as you buy things to eat or drink, especially from the many vending machines. You will likely be walking around with the waste for a while if you don’t stay inside a restaurant.
5. Smoking is allowed in most places.
As a non-smoker, this was a bit of a peeve during my visit. There were a couple of restaurants that we had to walk in and out of because of how strong the smell of smoke was. Many locations have designated smoking areas, but those that don’t can be tough for people with allergies.
6. Your meals begin with a hot towel or wet napkin.
This was one of my favorite parts of eating in Tokyo! With most meals you receive a hot towel when you sit down to wipe your hands and face with. Especially because I visited in winter, this was a nice little treat. In places where I did not receive a hot towel, I got a wet napkin in its place. Both were nice for feeling clean and freshened up before starting your meal.
7. It’s not rude to call over a waiter.
In fact, you won’t be served in most restaurants unless you do! It took me a bit to get used to, but you can simply wave or call out to a server to get their attention for anything you need. Of course you should still be polite in doing so, but you don’t need to worry about seeming impatient.
8. And at almost every restaurant you pay at the counter.
After you are finished ordering, your waiter will likely bring your check over right away. This is not to rush you, but to allow you to leave whenever you would like. Most restaurants in Tokyo were like diners in that you just walked with the check to the register and paid right before walking out the door. And remember, no tipping here!
9. Cash rules.
I pay with plastic any chance I get while I’m at home, but in Japan it is much easier to stick to cash. Many shops and restaurants are cash only, and even if they aren’t, it’s often a process to pay with a credit card. My tip is to get out as much money as you think you’ll need at the beginning of the trip so you don’t have to keep returning to ATMS and pay the foreign transaction fees!
10. It’s not that expensive!
Another misconception I had about Tokyo was that everything was going to be very expensive, and that wasn’t true! There were the some tourist traps that charged way more than they should, but overall I found the city affordable. The metro is only about $1 to $2 per trip, and even when I journeyed to Kamakura it only cost $10. You can find a good meal of ramen, noodles, or gyoza for under $10 too! Sushi is on the more expensive side, but it’s actually much less common than I expected.
11. Honesty is the only policy.
Don’t let your guard fall too far down, but overall the Japanese people I interacted were kind, polite, and honest. I didn’t meet a single person who wasn’t willing to help me out or chat for a bit. A great example of the character I experienced was when we went to a bar called Asyl in Golden Gai. We returned to this bar two nights after our original visit, and Abe, the owner, greeted us immediately by giving a friend back a 50 yen piece, saying that he had accidentally overcharged him the last time we were there. The hospitality was amazing all around!
If you are traveling to Tokyo for the first time, I hope that these tips will help you feel more prepared for visit. And if you’ve been before, did these things surprise you as well? Let me know if you have any other tips for first-timers in the city.